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Best-Case/Worst-Case: Game by Game in the Big Ten Leaders

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Projecting every game of the 2013 season, with a little wiggle room

Gregory Shamus

All predictions and points spreads are based on our preseason F/+ ratings. For the full ratings, see the this year's edition of the Football Outsiders Almanac.
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Previously: Projecting the ACC Atlantic and ACC Coastal.

1 Ohio State
Best-Case. There's no point in rehashing Ohio State's 2012 renaissance here, except to say that no one outside of maybe a couple of dorm rooms in Ann Arbor and Madison, Wisc., still needs to be convinced of OSU's capacity for running the table. As long as they win the games they're supposed to – which is all of them; according to Vegas, only Louisville has a better chance of finishing undefeated – the question is not whether the Buckeyes are good enough; again, it's whether the schedule is good enough. Last year, NCAA sanctions meant the debate was strictly academic. But we know that the BCS computers collectively ranked Ohio State in a tie for third place on the final weekend of the regular season, behind Notre Dame (12–0) and Florida (11–1) and even with Alabama (12–1). And although we don't know where the Buckeyes stood with voters in the Coaches' and Harris polls, who were barred from ranking OSU at all, the final Associated Press poll of the regular season relegated them to No. 3, behind Notre Dame and Alabama. Based on that, the rough consensus at the time was that even if Ohio State had been allowed to the BCS party, the perceived weakness of its schedule probably would have kept it out of the championship game, anyway.

That assumption doesn't consider how probation influenced the opinions of AP voters, which could account for the gap between OSU and Alabama and won't be a factor in 2013. But it does highlight just how badly the Buckeyes need someone on the schedule – Wisconsin, Michigan, the Legends Division rep in the B1G title game, anyone – to hold up as an elite win. In the end, the most valuable scalp on the wall in 2012 was Michigan, ranked 18th in the final BCS standings. No other opponent on the schedule finished in the top 25, and no other opponent on this year's schedule is opening the season ranked in the top twenty. (Northwestern and Wisconsin are on the bubble in the bottom five.) One convincing win is all it will take to get over the top.

Worst-Case. There are issues beyond the schedule, namely the defense, which is breaking in six new starters among the front seven. The new kids are going to be fine, eventually, but in time for back-to-back dates with Wisconsin and Northwestern? Note also that the undefeated record in 2012 came with its share of near-misses, including a close call against Cal in September, a one-point win over Michigan State, a wholesale defensive collapse at Indiana, a wild, late comeback against Purdue in overtime and another OT escape at Wisconsin, involving a late, inopportune fumble on the goal line. That wasn't even the meat of the schedule: The Bears, Spartans, Hoosiers, Boilermakers and Badgers all wound up losing at least six games apiece. As tall an order as a repeat performance would be – especially for the defense – the 2013 edition could be every bit as good as its immediate predecessor and still watch the B1G title slip away on a couple of untimely flags, random drops or bad bounces in the wrong games.

Reality. The last team to put together two undefeated, untied regular seasons in consecutive years, in a major conference, was the juggernaut Leinart/Bush-era USC Trojans of 2004 and 2005. Before that, it was the juggernaut Miami Hurricanes of 2001 and 2002. Both of those outfits sent essentially their entire starting lineups on to the NFL, and most of the backups, and still wound up getting toppled in the end with the BCS title on the line. The last team to actually finish two undefeated regular seasons in a row, including the bowl game, was the juggernaut Tommie Frazier-era Nebraska Cornhuskers of 1994 and 1995, before anyone had conceived of the BCS. Winning twelve games in a row is hard. Even dedicated Bucknuts recognize just how long the odds are of winning twenty-five.

Add to that the inexperience on defense, and the fact that no one confused Ohio State for a juggernaut in 2012, and the margin for error is just too low to buy another run to 12–0. Still, a return to the top of the Big Ten and a BCS bowl after a two-year absence is no mere consolation prize. And for the rest of us, at least we won't have to spend Thanksgiving arguing over the relative merits of California and Iowa.
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Projected Record: 11–1 (7–1 Big Ten)

2 Wisconsin
Best-Case. Aside from this guy, you won't find anyone on the record this summer touting Wisconsin as a realistic spoiler to Ohio State's coronation, and there are many good reasons for that. (See below.) But it's the Badgers, not the Buckeyes, who have carried the Big Ten banner in Pasadena each of the last three years, and with an upset in Columbus it's the Badgers who will have the clear path through an underwhelming schedule. Like OSU, Wisconsin misses the heaviest hitters from the Legends Division, Michigan State and Nebraska; unlike OSU, Wisky also misses Michigan and gets arguably its three toughest games aside from the Buckeyes (Northwestern, BYU and Penn State) at home. The only other notable road trip is at Arizona State.

Wisconsin can afford a mulligan there and still hit B1G play with every realistic goal intact. Upend Ohio State, and the parameters for what qualifies as "realistic" begin to change. There are just enough traps to put 12–0 out of reach, but not the conference championship. And skepticism about the schedule cannot keep them from another Rose Bowl.

Worst-Case. Under different circumstances we'd be talking about the 2012 team in terms of collapse. If Ohio State and Penn State aren't saddled with sanctions that lift the third-place Badgers into the Big Ten Championship Game last December, Wisconsin is just another underachieving, 7–5 outfit bound for the Car Care Bowl, not the Rose Bowl. Brett Bielema looks less like a guy in search of a new challenge at Arkansas than a guy who's decided to get out while the getting's good. As it is, the Badgers have a new staff, a sketchy situation at quarterback, two brand new cornerbacks and no inherent talent advantage over the rest of the conference.

Even with the kindest possible draw from across the aisle, there are at least six plausible losses again at Arizona State, Ohio State and Iowa, and at home against Northwestern, BYU and Penn State. If the quarterbacks go belly-up in the new system, it's a very small step from 7–5 to a losing record.

Reality. The coaching change and uncertainty under center muddle the picture, but this is a fundamentally sound program that rarely lost games it shouldn't under Bielema, and the conference championship reflected the reality of the 2012 edition at least as accurately as the final record: All six of the Badgers' losses came by a touchdown or less in games that went down to the wire, three of them coming in overtime. Trends that one-sided in one season tend to correct toward the mean in the next. But against this schedule there's no reason to cut it so close.
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Projected Record: 10–2 (7–1 Big Ten)

Rich Barnes / USA Today Sports

3 Penn State
Best-Case. Where is the bar for Penn State? The 2012 Lions were backed into such an unprecedented, demoralizing corner that an 8–2 finish on the heels of early losses to Ohio U. and Virginia felt like a genuine triumph, even if only two of those wins (over Northwestern and Wisconsin) came against winning teams. The 2013 Lions, thinned by scholarship restrictions, will field the youngest lineup in the conference by a wide margin, including one of two first-year quarterbacks vying to be thrown into the deep end.

And yet: Once it found its footing, PSU reinforced the distance between itself and the bottom half of the conference, dropping Illinois, Northwestern, Iowa, Purdue and Indiana by double digits, and closed by outlasting Wisconsin in the finale. It was the only team in the conference with a 1,000-yard rusher (Zack Zwinak) and receiver (Allen Robinson), both of whom are back. With no major hurdles outside of the conference and no Michigan State from the Legends side, just taking care of the obvious wins will get them back to eight. Steal one or two from Michigan, Nebraska and/or Wisconsin, and double digits is not out of the question.

Worst-Case. True freshman quarterback, true freshman quarterback, true freshman quarterback. Christian Hackenberg is as hyped as they come, but there is no accounting for how any individual player is going to adjust to the steep learning curve at this level. (Ditto the new cornerbacks, who are only sophomores, and not nearly as touted.) Syracuse and Central Florida are more dangerous as underdogs than Ohio and Virginia appeared to be last year; another slow start in those games could feed directly into an 0–3 Big Ten start against Indiana, Michigan and Ohio State, at which point the only thing left to salvage will be the young quarterback's confidence.

Reality. The long-term goal is to establish a solid core of young players who can get the program through the next three years of probation with reputation more or less intact. In the short-term, though, if the new starters can survive September there is no reason they can't keep their heads above water in the conference. The way the November schedule sets up, a win over Nebraska or Wisconsin to close would generate some much-needed optimism for 2014.
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Projected Record: 9–3 (5–3 Big Ten)

4 Indiana
Best-Case. It hasn't been as long you think since Indiana was in a bowl game – 2007 Insight Bowl, yo – but given that that game ended a 14-year bowl drought at the time… yeah, the postseason barrier means a lot here. Last year's team held out hope well into November, when it finally broke through against Illinois and Iowa after enduring a string of narrow losses to Ball State (two points), Michigan State (four points), Ohio State (three points) and Navy (one point). The optimism was brief, snuffed out in lopsided losses to Wisconsin, Penn State and Purdue to close the season, but it offered enough of a glimpse of progress to put, say, the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl squarely in their sights.

At the very least, the Hoosiers can hang with anyone in this conference in a shootout, as they proved by hanging 49 points on the Buckeyes. Virtually everyone who set foot on the field for the offense is back, including both the starting quarterback, Cameron Coffman, and the guy he replaced, Tre Roberson, who broke his leg in the second game. Either guy makes Indiana an upset threat against the likes of Missouri or Penn State, both of which visit Bloomington and either of which could serve as a key step to .500.

Worst-Case. The offense wasn't quite as prolific on the scoreboard as the glut of returning production suggests (28.9 points per game in Big Ten play, including the outburst against OSU), but the defense was truly abysmal – bad enough that coach Kevin Wilson hit the JUCO circuit hard over the winter in pursuit of potential starters at defensive tackle and linebacker, and may be inclined to get a four-star freshman or two into the mix from the best incoming recruiting class Indiana has signed in a long, long time. If so, desperate measures may mean the problem gets worse before it gets better, and if it gets any worse there is still no game the Hoosiers can't lose.

Reality. Wilson has the pieces in place to get over the hump, and he'll know if the schedule math breaks in his favor by the end of September: Ideally, the Hoosiers need to take at least two of three against Navy, Bowling Green and Missouri before hitting the conference slate, where Minnesota, Illinois and Purdue are vulnerable but probably no one else. Anything worse than 3–1 in the first month is license to start the ten count.
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Projected Record: 5–7 (3–5 Big Ten)

Sandra Dukes / USA Today Sports

5 Purdue
Best-Case. Purdue fired Danny Hope after back-to-back 6–6 campaigns that resulted in bowl games, so it obviously believes the ceiling is higher than that. (Or at least high enough to convince more fans to show up for home games.) Against this schedule, that's a tough sell.

Since we're in the optimistic section, let's say the Boilermakers upset Cincinnati on opening day and dispatch FCS patsy Indiana State to start 2–0. Darrell Hazell's got 'em fired up. Northern Illinois, while coming off an appearance in the Orange Bowl, is a MAC team and therefore automatically falls into the "beatable" category. (The Huskies lost to Iowa last year, so there you go.) Iowa, Illinois and Indiana all lost to Purdue last November in Hope's final three games. And voilà, six wins without a really implausible upset in the lot.

Worst-Case. Here's the thing: By the time the Boilermakers get to the manageable part of the schedule in November, it's hard to see how anything will remain of their bowl ambitions, and perhaps of their basic physical capacity to perform. Beating Cincinnati on the road may be plausible, but the Bearcats are solid double-digit favorites. After that, Purdue is faced with three consecutive games against teams that were in BCS bowls last year (Notre Dame, Wisconsin, NIU), immediately followed by conference heavies Nebraska, Michigan State and Ohio State. If the Boilers get out of that at 2–6, with nothing resembling a proven quarterback or big-play threat on offense, they'll be overachieving. But they will not be going back to a bowl game.

Reality. The teams Purdue really needs to beat to break even (NIU, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana) are all looking at Purdue as a prime target, too, and for good reason: The Boilermakers have nothing to hang their hats on. That would be just as true if Hope had been allowed back to oversee another nondescript roster, only with the added tension of a coach fighting for his job on a weekly basis. Hazell has time, and he's going to need it.
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Projected Record: 3–9 (1–7 Big Ten)

6 Illinois
Best-Case. Well, in the "building for the future" sense, Illini fans are hoping to get a good look at hotshot quarterback recruit Aaron Bailey in place of beleaguered senior Nathan Scheelhaase, and it looks like they're going to get their wish in some capacity. But when the head coach begins laying the groundwork for blaming his predecessor in July, it's no secret what's in store.

There are wins to be had – the obvious candidates being Southern Illinois, Miami, Indiana and Purdue – but the two defining, "are we making progress here?" games are Cincinnati (again) early and especially Northwestern late, teams that have been more successful than Illinois lately but are by no means out of range talent-wise. At least a competitive turn against the Bearcats would be a reassuring sign that the weekly blowouts of 2012 (nine double-digit losses, five by 28 points or more) are in the past. If that's the case, and the Illini can pick up a late win or two against Indiana and/or Purdue, a season-ending upset over Northwestern would count as a significant dose of optimism for 2014.

Worst-Case. "Losing close" is still losing, and there's still no assurance Illini is at that phase: They look like at least two-touchdown underdogs in at least seven games. The most winnable Big Ten games, Indiana and Purdue, are both on the road, on the heels of a month-long stretch of likely beatings at the hands of Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State. Illinois is already at 14 consecutive conference losses dating back to 2011 – what's another eight?

Reality. The Illini were reasonably close in one Big Ten game in 2012, a 20–17 loss to Purdue in which they never led, and were more or less trounced in the rest. Unless you count leading the league in punting, there were no bright spots, statistically. Scheelhaase is the kind of athlete who could be a scrappy star on a better team – it's easy to imagine him in the Cain Kolter role at Northwestern – but here he's asked to do much with his arm in the absence of any viable alternatives. He was the most-sacked quarterback in the conference in 2012, and the offense as a whole finished dead last in both yards and points per game. For now, the goal is just finding a way out of the cellar.
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Projected Record: 3–9 (1–7 Big Ten)